Courtesy Francesco Tonelli

If Jean-Georges’s restaurants are an institution today, his teens and twenties were marked by acts of defiance in and out of the kitchen.

 

Growing up, Jean-Georges’ mother and grandmother cooked all day, every day to feed the thirty employees of the Vongerichten coal factory—the very coal business Jean-Georges had been slated to take over. At 16, Jean-Georges was sent to engineering school to learn the family trade. He misbehaved and was soon expelled.

 

If the story already sounds “meant to be,” at the time it wasn’t. Jean-Georges’ love for food amounted to a taste for his mother’s home cooked meals, not a master plan to open up some thirty-five worldwide restaurants. The teen found himself a high school dropout and jobless. He DJed for his sister’s parties in the basement while his parents grew increasingly restless about their son’s future.

 

By chance, as Jean-Georges explains, he stumbled on an apprentice job at L’Auberge de L’Ill in Alsace, which led him to apprentice in other restaurants across France. After seven years of apprenticing, Jean-Georges still saw cooking as just a job, disillusioned by very long workdays. “I wasn’t sure…” he mentions often during our interview.

 

At 23 Jean-Georges was sent to open up a restaurant in Bangkok, a task he felt unqualified to take on and refused at first. After landing in the Bangkok airport, Jean-Georges stopped his taxi five times to smell exotic local spices and delicacies.

 

Sometime after, Jean-Georges was at the local market and could not find enough apples to make the traditional fois gras dish served later that day at the restaurant. He decided to use mangoes instead. The dish soon became a Jean-Georges trademark, a marriage of French and Thai flavors and the birth of fusion cuisine. The new palette would eventually earn its Michelin Stars, but was considered at the time more of French heresy than gastronomy.

 

As we wrapped up our interview, Jean-Georges elaborated some more on the ups and downs of the market—this time the Union Square Greenmarket. There were many late night negotiations with farmers, competition for the best produces and cash only purchases.

 

Jean-Georges suddenly remembered that morning’s delivery of peaches, the last ones of the seasons. He sliced one up for the crew and me to try. It was perfectly bruised. I asked, what  would become of the other peaches? Their juices combined with horseradish, maple syrup, vinegar, limejuice and sugar for Jean-Georges’ famous shrimp cocktail sauce.

 

We don’t always know why we’re rebelling against teachers, parents and institutions. But, down the way, it may lead you to see things that no one else can see, like shrimps with a peach cocktail sauce. And everyone will eat it up.
Tune in next time to watch Jean-Georges and his son, the other Chef Vongerichten, in a follow-up interview.

 

Watch Jean-Georges discuss his 20s here…

 

Laura is the founder of 20to30.com. She decided to create an online community to share those universal 20to30 moments that never made it onto CVs, bios or wikipedia entries.

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